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U.S. Participation in the Great War (World War One)
I Did My Bit for Democracy

Andrew Johnson was an African-American veteran interviewed by a WPA worker in 1938. In the excerpt below, from American Life Histories, 1936-1940, he describes some of his experiences serving in the military. How did the draft system work? Does it seem to be a fair system to you? Why or why not? What surprises you about Johnson's experiences as a soldier? How could you find out whether his experiences are typical of many soldiers?

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The news came that every male between the ages of 21-31 was to go to one of the numerous Local Draft Boards set up in every part of the country.

I registered with the Local Draft Board, Swarthmore, Pa. on June 5, 1917 and was given a card with the number 1493. If this number were drawn out of a large glass bowl in the Quarter-master General's Office in Washington, then I was told to report back to the L. D. B. This was the beginning of nearly a year-long period of reporting to one place or another, both in American and France.

All Summer long I anxiously scanned the daily papers for the list of numbers as published by the War Department. In September I accepted a teaching job in Virginia, but had been there hardly a month when 1493 appeared, so back I came to report to the Local Draft Board and claimed exemption because I was the sole support of my aged widowed mother and two sisters and a brother. Then, too, all teachers were supposed to be exempt from military service.

But my claims for exemption were denied. I found out later, that the chairman of the Local Draft Board, a coal yard operator named Green, had summarily placed my name on the list of men to go to war because he had exhausted the exemptions allowed and was compelled to fill out the quota.

A special train came through one day in October and I said good-bye to my family and climbed aboard, with eight other colored men from my town. Every town the train passed through contributed its quota of young men, so that when we reached Admiral, Maryland, the train was crowded with wildly cheering, excited heroes-to-be.

Alighting from the train, we were told to line up and follow several military-appearing men. The contingent, composed of men dressed in old clothes and carrying suitcases, straggled up the road several miles until we came to a cantonment called Meade, named after a Civil War general.

Here we were lined up again, told to file into a large mess hall where we found that the Army ate other vegetables besides beans. After mess we lined up again for medical inspection, then marched off to a supply station and issued Army uniforms and equipment. Dress shoes and heavy hob-nailed field shoes, an O. D. tunic, shirt, trousers, underwear, socks, a necktie, handkerchiefs, towels and soap. . . .

Captain Queen sent for me the next day, the orderly who gave me the order told me to report to company headquarters. As I came up the walk, I passed an armed guard standing in front of a large flag, and he brought his gun to the ready and asked,

"Hey, buddy, where's your manners? Don't you know better'n walk past the colors without saluting?"

He patted his gun suggestively so I turned toward the colors, as he called it, and gave the only salute I knew, a Boy Scout salute learned as a child.

The guard looked at me rather disgustedly, and commented, "You're in the army now and we'll make a soldier out of you yet." I reported at the door and was sent to Captain Queen.

"You wanted to see me? I inquired. The captain cut in on me. "Soldier. When you are told to report to an officer, always salute until recognized, saying "Corporal Johnson reporting, sir." then stand at attention."

"Yes sir."

"I see by your draft board that you can use a typewriter. I'm making you a company clerk, with rank of corporal. You'll report to Lieut. Hinkson, in charge of headquarters platoon. Dismiss."

I managed a credible salute, turned on my heel and marched out. In the Army one day and already a corporal. I went over to the supply sergeant, drew my chevrons, and walked over to the barracks where I commenced sewing them on. Then, feeling very proud of my new rank, reported to headquarters platoon.

This time I had everything right. I saluted as I passed the colors, had a soldier point out Lieut. Hinkson, walked over to him, saluted and said, "Corporal Johnson reporting for duty as ordered by Captain Queen, sir."

The Lieutenant gravely returned my salute, glanced at my sleeve and said "Corporal, You're chevrons are quite new", he said. I answered proudly, "Yes sir, Lieutenant."

"Well, they're sewn on upside down," he snapped, "Go to the company tailor and have them adjusted properly." . . .

I soon learned the distinction between an officer and myself. I studied the Army Manual, The School of the Soldier, learned how to clean and care for a rifle, how to execute "order arms" without smashing my toes. I learned the difference between a canteen and a latrine. Being in the headquarters platoon, I was able to find out news of impending troop movements. In fact, I typed the order cancelling all leaves and ordering the men to report to the parade grounds with packs and in full marching order.

We were reviewed and inspected and then marked direct to a waiting train. Once on the train we were issued cards on which we wrote, Am leaving for somewhere in France. Goodbye.

We detrained at Hoboken. When we arrived darkness had fallen and it was raining a little. In the drizzle we were marched up the gang-plank of a transport and told to stay below decks until we were well out to sea. . . .

The North Atlantic was cold and dismal. In fact, the whole business was rather grim and uninspiring, but we reached Brest without incident, didn't even have one submarine scare on the way over. . . .

We went into intensive training and after six weeks we marched up to the town of Nancy in the Department of Douliard. We marched at night, rested in fields by day and noticed the almost solid lines of truck headed toward the Front, and passed troops returning from a tour of duty in the front line trenches.

In each squad, in addition to the riflemen there were [grenadiers?] who carried hand grenades. While we were marching we had the first casualty in our company. A grenadier, a belt of hand [grenadea?] strapped around his middle, stumbled and fell, the grenades exploded, everybody who could, jumped into ditches or flattened themselves on the ground. Total score, three dead and eight wounded.

Of the dead we buried two, but the third, the grenadier was blown to bits, nothing left but a hole in the road.

We were in the [Argonne?] Forest when the pig push started an September 26, 1918 and we stayed in there five days, part of the time we were shelled by our own artillery in support, the 349th Filed Artillery Regiment. We had no battle flags, no shears to cut barbed wire entaglements, our liaison [men?] (runners with messengers) were all killed or wounded trying to get through with messages. . . .

Enemy airplanes flow over us several times, dropping pamphlets addressed to us. "Colored Americans. We have no quarrel with you. We are your friends. Throw down your arms and cover over to our side. We will treat you better than you are treated in the South."

But I don't remember a single case of desertion.

After the [Argonns?], we went up into the [Vosgen?] Mountains, where it was rather quiet. We needed it for we had been cut up pretty badly. Replacements (soldiers sent to a unit to replace the dead and wounded) were sent us, and I was promoted to Sergeant. . . .Armistice Day found us before Metz. We were waiting to storm a great walled city which would have cost us many men, as we would have to cross a level plain about two miles long.

In December 1918 we were marched to [Le Mona?], the central delousing plant of the A. E. F. Here we had our clothes taken from us, and I lost my sweater which had been knitted for me by my girl friend, we were plunged into baths, and when we came out the other end we were given clean clothes, and that was the end of the big gray cooties which had been our constant companions.

Back to the mud of [Brest?] and here we embarked for home near the end of February, 1919, and after staying in Camp Upton a few days we were sent to Camp [Meade?], Maryland where on March 5, 1919 we were given a bonus of $60, an honorable discharge, and the 368th Infantry regiment became a part of history.
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View the entire interview from which this excerpt was taken, from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.